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Edgar Degas Artist Biography

Edgar Degas was French artist famous for his work in painting, sculpture, printmaking and drawing. He is regarded as one of the founders of Impressionism although he rejected the term, and preferred to be called a realist. A superb draughtsman, he is especially identified with the subject of the dance, and over half his works depict dancers.  These display his mastery in the depiction of movement, as do his racecourse subjects and female nudes. His portraits are considered to be among the finest in the history of art and he still held in high esteem.

Edgar Degas was born in 1834, on Rue de la Victoire in Paris, the son of a wealthy art-loving banker. Initially trained in law, he instead entered the Ecole des Beaux Arts, Paris in 1855 where he studied under Louis Lamothe. Fascinated with form and technique, he was always experimenting with composition, media and colour.

Eager to became a historic artist, Edgar Degas spent a period of time in Italy, studying the work of the Old Masters including Michelangelo, Raphael, Titian, and other artists of the Renaissance. His first works include many portraits and copies of historical paintings, for example 'Italian Head' (1856) and 'Young Spartans' (1860), all painted in a severely classical style. It was during this period that Degas studied and became accomplished in the techniques of high, academic, and classical art.

In 1864, a chance meeting with Édouard Manet led Degas to encounter the Impressionist group including Pierre-Auguste Renoir, Claude Monet and Alfred Sisley. He soon moved away from historical scenes to concentrate on the contemporary, turn to more modern techniques and subject matter. He exhibited in seven out of the eight Impressionist exhibitions. In his paintings he began to favor certain subjects such as racing scenes, café scenes, ballet, theatre and the circus.

Returning to Paris near the end of 1873, Degas, along with Monet, Sisley and several other painters, formed the ‘Société Anonyme des Artistes’ (Society of Independent Artists), a group committed to putting on exhibitions free of the Salon's control. Over the course of the next 12 years, the group staged eight such Impressionist exhibitions, and Degas exhibited at all of them. His most famous paintings during these years were "The Dancing Class" (1871), "The Dance Class" (1874), "Woman Ironing" (1873) and "Dancers Practicing at the Bar" (1877).

Degas lived well into the 20th century, and though he painted less during these years, he promoted his work tirelessly and became an avid art collector. In the mid-1890s, an episode known as the "Dreyfus Affair" sharply divided French society with those whose anti-Semitism blinded them to Dreyfus's innocence. His stance against Dreyfus cost him many friends and much respect within the typically more tolerant avant-garde art circles.

He never married, though he did count several women, including American painter Mary Cassatt, among his intimate friends. Edgar Degas died in Paris on September 27, 1917, at the age of 83.

Edgar Degas was a master draughtsman, both academic and instinctive. His academic training encouraged a strong classical tendency in his art, which conflicted with the approach of the Impressionists. While he valued line as a means to describe contours and to lend solid compositional structure to a picture, they favored color, and more concentration on surface texture. As well, he preferred to work from sketches and memory in the traditional academic manner, while they were more interested in painting outdoors.

Edgar Degas was intrigued by the human figure, and in his many images of women - dancers, singers, and laundresses - he strove to capture the body in unusual positions. While critics of Impressionists focused their attacks on their formal innovations, it was Degas's lower-class subjects that brought him the most disapproval.

His most important art is the painting ‘Foyer de la Danse’ (1872), presenting us one of the unconventional perspectives that is so typical and distinctive in his work. Rather than evoke the light and atmosphere of the scene, as some of his Impressionist peers might have done, Degas has chosen to create a striking arrangement of space, one which echoes the experiences his contemporaries might have had throughout the new modern city. 

"A painting requires a little mystery, some vagueness, some fantasy. When you always make your meaning perfectly plain you end up boring people."

More art prints from Edgar Degas

Dancer at the Photographer's By Edgar Degas
Absinthe By Edgar Degas
After The Bath By Edgar Degas
Green Dancers By Edgar Degas
The Belleli Family By Edgar Degas
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